Tag Archives: Dru Stephenson

Something’s Got To Give

THE LATE MARILYN MONROE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018

 

We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.

We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom.  The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide.  But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable.  Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.

Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!

There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury.  Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.

Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine.  The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony.  We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.

Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly.  Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed.  The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives.  Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed.  Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.

Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.

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Blooming Great

THE SECRET GARDEN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s novel first appeared in 1911.  It wasn’t quite that long ago when I read it but various film and stage adaptations of it have kept the story and characters in my mind over the years.  Now comes this new version by Simon Ravenhill and it’s a corker.  With only a cast of four, Ravenhill delivers the whole book and while the action moves swiftly, it never feels rushed.  The pacing is spot on, allowing key moments to develop and play out while keeping the plot ticking along.

Nicolette Morgan is our heroine, the orphan Mary Lennox, returning from India to an England she has never known.  Accustomed to being dressed by her Ayah, Mary is a fish out of kedgeree and, pretty much left to her own devices, continues to feel unloved and unwanted by all and sundry.  Until she begins to make friends, that is.  Morgan is excellent, giving us young Mary’s wilfulness and vulnerability without playing down to the character’s age.

She is supported by three versatile character actors who populate the rest of the story with quick changes and varied characterisations – it’s easy to forget there’s only four of them in it, and such is the transformative nature of the costumes and the actors’ skills, it’s hard to believe that the fearsome housekeeper Mrs Medlock is played by the same actor (Dru Stephenson) as the likeable, green-fingered, Doctor Doolittle-ish young boy, Dickon.  Lorenna White bobs and chatters as chambermaid Martha, and really comes into her own as the tantrum-throwing invalid Colin.  James Nicholas brings stature to the piece in a range of authoritarian roles: the Doctor,  the hunchbacked Mr Craven, a colonel.   This is a top-drawer quartet in a high-quality piece.

Simon Ravenhill also directs, getting his cast to work hard to keep things going, and there are plenty of pleasing touches, simple but so effective: a four-poster bed dominates the set, and a free-standing but movable door helps give the sense of the rambling country manor house to which Mary is consigned.   Puppets are used sparingly for that extra touch of animal magic.  The detailed costumes and the odd piece of furniture convey the period setting but it’s the actors that drive the piece.  Ravenhill’s script uses Burnett’s words but allows the characters to interact rather than resorting to narration.  I will admit to having something of a Pavlovian response to the Indian music used to underscore the scene changes.  By the interval, I was craving a vegetable madras.

A faithful and classy production of a classic story with a child-friendly running time, this is a captivating and well-tended Secret Garden that touches the heart and is yet another example of the excellent work produced at the Blue Orange.  The book’s message remains: what is left neglected will wither and spoil.  And that works for people as much as plants.

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